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The Public Square Isn't Public
There was no golden age of a universal, open public space for discussion and debate, but what we have now is a special kind of technocratic, oligarchic hellscape.
The other day Twitter jammed up tweets that shared links to Substack articles. It was a shot against the bow as this platform introduces its Notes features, a tweet-style way of sharing content across the network. Journalist Matt Taibbi, who has a substantial following on both platforms, was pissed and said so on Twitter. That caught some attention. Elon Musk walked back the restrictions, more or less, pretty quickly. And here we are. Shit, meet show. Bad news for the public square—or the ramshackle hellscape we cobble together and call a public square when a single company, or person, can do so much, so fast.
The first rule of a critique of the present is that one should never invent a straw-man golden era to tilt against. “If only we could go back to when…” When what? When each and every person someone had enough and wanted nothing more? When violence was unthinkable and love was unconditional? When we were smarter and kinder and better? When we lived in Eden? When dinosaurs ruled the earth? A corollary to that first rule is that one shouldn’t invent an equivalent present or future—a brushed-aluminum utopia towards which we are cruising at stop speed.
That’s all by way of saying there was no golden era of the public square. There was no time when everyone, everywhere came together as moral equals to discuss, deliberate, and debate; to be heard and seen and listened to. There was no time in which political and media and business elites welcomed mass input and took it to heart, allowing it in good faith to shape the structures of our reality and the little bits of day to day this and that, the stuff that glues it all together. But what we have here is a special kind of bad news bears.
We have outsourced the public square to a handful of rich, powerful, global tech giants. Meta/Facebook, Alphabet/Google, TikTok, and Twitter shape so much of the spaces in which we come together to learn about the world and make decisions. The early-years hope for a decentralized, open and free internet crashed against the rocks of the marketplace, the capitalist wonderland that we’re told promotes competition and innovation, but has long trended in many industries towards monopoly and a copycatting race to the middle. Because of that trend, and governments letting it go, a handful of people can shape large parts of the public sphere, limiting what is possible, who is seen, and how they are seen—or not seen.
None of this is to say that there should not be limits to speech or what can be posted. Some speech is so injurious to individuals and the common good that it ought to be limited. But those instances should be governed by an assessment of the common good, not the whims of the market or some angry tech bro. The public good should also guide policies that govern these tech spaces—spaces that have become central to public information sharing, discussion, and education. The thorny question of who and how speech ought to be regulated remains (many of us trust fully neither the state nor corporations but may trust the state a bit more). But the principle of the public good is up for broad agreement, at least among those who care about such things.
The fact that the public square is dependent on a handful of corporations whose goal is maximizing profit, who exist across borders and control vast sums of capital, and who have the capacity to bully government into setting their own rules makes governing the public sphere for the public good difficult. If these companies decide to prioritize nonsense, to feature bullshit to stir people up, to bar people from seeing the news, to ban link from rivals, to suppress opinions and news they don’t care for, and so forth, there’s little the public can do in the near-time except get angry about it online or take to the streets. We know which of those options is most likely to be adopted.
People can head somewhere else, of course. There are other spaces in which folks carry on with their business, a mix of entertainment and news and politics. Substack is one of them. No surprise—I would say this, wouldn’t I?—it’s one of my favourites. There are many rivals to the giants, and as people embrace them, there is some hope for a decentralized internet public square made up of many spaces. But there is still value to having a handful of central spaces where big things happen and many people join together at once, and where those same folks have a shot at sharing and receiving a wide-distribution of information. That is a good check on power, state and corporate.
Creating and preserving such spaces requires governments to take regulation in the name of the public good seriously. And taking regulation seriously when combating tech giants means banding together across borders. That ain’t easy. Moreover, some governments and their people prefer technocratic, capitalist domination. Those people are not our allies in the fight for a better internet.
Since tech giants have taken over the public square, we ought to insist on state regulations to ensure the open and free flow of information and interconnectedness that makes contemporary life online bearable, useful, and good. Governments will have to cooperate with like-minded states to negotiate in blocs, not unlike the European Union has, to ensure they have enough power to stand up these corporations. It can be done. If it isn’t done, so much of the public square will remain in the hands of a tiny few, vulnerable to their whims and egos and tantrums, a contemporary royalty reminiscent of, though not equal to, the worst ages of monarchist domination.
Beyond regulation lies broadly distributed ownership or state ownership of platforms. Those are options for another, longer, deeper post that I may get to someday. I hope that if and when I do, I will be able to share that with you on any platform I damn well please.